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Rostam ‘Half Light’ – Review

21 Sep

Rostam ‘Half Light’

Vampire weekend’s chief architect Rostam has been busy of late, rebranding himself as a post-pop auteur, shaping deep cuts by Carley Rae Jenson, Solange, Haim and Frank Ocean. On his proper debut album ‘Half Light’ he collects some solo songs that have been knocking around for years and puts them together with some new material. ‘Half Light’ effectively conveys Rostam’s imagination, enthusiasm and the diversity of his interests; but what it has in ambition, it loses in coherence. Fifteen tracks is probably a handful too many.

On opener ‘Sumer’ he unwinds a complicated melody, while orchestral flourishes adorn the background. It gives the impression that ‘Half Light’ may take us in the direction of ‘Person Pitch’, and to that end he sounds not dissimilar to Panda Bear. Elsewhere his voice, always on the verge of breaking in to tears or laughter (I can’t quite tell which) recalls Devandra Banhaet, Anohni or, fittingly, a more whimsical Ezra Koenig – without ever quite carving out its own identity. Similarly, he confidently unrolls tracks influenced by Ska, pop, trap, r&b and indie rock without ever hitting upon a sound that is truly his own. Still, ‘Half Light’ is further proof of Rostam’s prodigal talent for understanding, and breaking down, genre.


Foo Fighters ‘Concrete and Gold’

Foo Fighters albums come along reliably every three or four years, and ‘Concrete and Gold’ is just that – another Foo Fighters album. Certainly nothing more, but perhaps a little less. It certainly doesn’t compare to their career best ‘The Colour and The Shape’ or their recent stand out ‘Wasting Light’. In fact it contains less hooks, less surprises and less reasons to listen than even 2015’s disappointing ‘Sonic Highways.’ Admittedly Foo Fighters have always been a singles band but the singles on ‘Concrete and Gold’ are more auto-pilot than ‘Learning to Fly’, more over-long than ‘everlong’. Only the magnified harmonies used through the album add colour to what is otherwise a fairly middle of the road rock album. Bloated and dull, but always reliably proficient, ‘Concrete and Gold’ is the sound of a great band running out of new ideas and losing touch with old ones.


Prophets of Rage ‘Prophets of Rage’

A lot of people have already theorised about why Prophets of Rage (who include members of legendary bands Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy and Cyprus Hill) sound so off-point despite sticking to a formula they’ve all successfully used in the past. For my money it’s the absence of the four letter word that links the band to their main forefather. RAGE. Prophets of Rage’s music is recognisably propulsive thanks to the same rhythm section, the same legendary guitarist using the exact same instrument and shredding better than ever. But one vital ingredient is missing. Zack De La Rocha. I never realised just how necessary his incendiary lyrics, uncensored anger and room shaking vocals actually were to the success of the band. In his place are Chuck D and B Real, two rappers who at best sound like tame approximations of not only De La Roche but also of their past selves. There is seldom any bile or originality in their uncomplicated rhymes either, which are delivered with little of the passion that their platform demands. There will always be a place for energetic, well intentioned political punk rock, and ‘Prophets of Rage’ is an enjoyable record – it just never motivates, agitates or inspires like you feel it should do.



The National ‘Sleep Well Beast’ – Review

17 Sep

I feel like every review of a new National album starts from the assumption that it is going to be boring. When I return to them, I think I start from that assumption as well. I suppose their sad, slow songs are so good that we collectively forget there are both shaggier and sharper sides and edges to this band. Songs that shout, scratch and shriek. Songs that pop like balloons. All sides of the band are represented on their seventh (seventh!) album, ‘Sleep Well Beast’, whose biggest achievement is how it manages to readjust the temperature controls ever so slightly whilst essentially keeping the listener feeling comfortable and relaxed. This is still a National album, and it sounds like it. But things are just ever so slightly grouchier, darker and more agitated.

The big picture is that this is Matt Beringer’s divorce album – the twist being that the writing process actually saved the marriage. It encompasses all the rage, contemplativeness, grief, depression, optimism and renewal that that process implies. Nice idea, but, well, both BeyoncĂ© and Jaz Z stamped their names on that idea on their most recent albums, and besides, every National album has covered themes of grown up, marital disharmony before. So what’s really new?

Mostly it’s the music. At times the sounds are more fragmented than they’ve ever been before, which makes it feel like the band members are working against an ideal of unity; rubbing up and pulling at the edges of each other. On lead single ‘The System only Dreams in Total Darkness’, a Woody Woodpecker guitar squeals and splutters in fits and spurts while brooding percussion builds tension and drama. On ‘Empire Line’, a tightly wound beat rattles against thudding synths. Peculiar vocal snatches, and a flickering high hat, disrupt Beringer’s bassey croon on ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’. The songs themselves aren’t anything particularly groundbreaking for the band, and a couple are completely forgettable, but it’s consistently fascinating on a sonic level. Throughout there are guitars shredding against crystallised beats or bass lines circling in spite of chaos and noise. This creates for a tension that makes ‘Sleep Well Beast’ decidedly not an easy listening record, in spite of the grand pianos and stately melodies that ground almost every song.

You sense it wouldn’t be quite like this if it were left to Matt Berigner. By quite some distance this is his sleepiest contribution to a National record. His singing is lazy – even on the frantic, oddly positioned rocker, ‘Turtleneck’, he sounds like he’s on downers, fighting against a head cold. Thankfully then, his lyrical contribution is as singular as ever. He shines a light on the dusty corners of a marriage; with a novelist’s eye for odd detail and a Soap writer’s awareness of pure emotive power. As I said before, marital disharmony is hardly new ground for The National – arguably nothing here hits as hard as ‘Slipping Husband’, a frantic song on the subject from the band’s second album – but they’ve never gone in at the angle quite so doggedly before. In the past middle age was a scary prospect, creeping around the corner, here it’s a living and breathing reality.

To compensate for the necessary dullness of what is being described – essentially a slow, mundane collapse of a relationship – Beringer’s language becomes typically colourful and unusual. His style is to mix stone cold realism with ambiguous surrealism, to leave the reader swimming in the contrasts. And so, for example, we get intriguing head scratchers like ‘for years I used to put my head in the speakers in the hallway’ and ‘no other faith is light enough for this place’, splashed in with the brutal, simple honesty of ‘I don’t need you, besides I barely even see you anymore.’ The overall effect is both disorientating and captivating – it’s what makes Matt Beringer such a unique lyricist.

He knows when and how to dial it back as well. The National have always been capable of delivering gut punchingly simple sentiments (‘About Today’, ‘Lucky You’, ‘Slow Show’, ‘I Need My Girl’), and here they do it with the album’s best song ‘Dark Side of the Gym’, a pretty tune with a refrain of ‘I’m going to keep you in love with me’. It’s a song about how quickly time passes – one minute you’re struggling to talk to the girl you like, the next minute you’re on the brink of separation. The ultimate message though is about perseverance and commitment, and The National remain the greatest embodiment of, and ambassadors for this idea. The small miracle is that after all these years, The National Still sound like The National. Altered a little perhaps but recognisable as the same band. Like the longest lasting marriages, they’re complicated, slightly unstable and built on a foundation of deep lasting love.



LCD Soundsystem ‘American Dream’ – Review

7 Sep

It’s fair to say that James Murphy gets a mixed reception in Lizzie Goldman’s recent tome on New York’s indie rock revival of the early oughties, ‘Meet Me in the Bathroom’. At different points he’s described as aggressive, naive, an underdog, a genius, a sociopath and a dictator. It’s probably nothing he hasn’t heard, or tossed around in his head, a million times before. Self awareness is the weight around his neck. But where he’s used it as a tool in the past (most brilliantly on the still relevant ‘Loosing my Edge’), it now drags him down to the floor. ‘American Dream’, his first album since 2011’s ‘This is Happening’, is a weighty, anxious, self conscious record that drags so much more than anything he’s released in the past but hits hardest when it trades in the irony for sincerity.

Of course it’s the album fans had no reason to expect. When Murphey called time on LCD Soundsystem after their triumphant Madison Square Garden shows six years ago, he’d done more than most musicians can dream of: and why not kill your band when its young, and leave a beautiful corpse? The trilogy of albums he’d put out at that point were an almost untouchable, impossible collection of dance rock hybrids that made good on two decades worth of singles, remixes, engineering, production work and general rock geek fandom promise. You could understand why he wanted to stick rather than twist.

But Murphey is nothing if not a rock Historian, and as such he will have known that very few farewell tours are ever actually that. Just as The Band eventually returned after ‘The Last Waltz’ and The Eagles reappeared with their ‘hell freezes over’ tour, so too, he must have anticipated, the day would come when he’d want to get his own band back together. If that leaves a general bad taste in some fans mouths (particularly after revelations that those Madison Square Garden ‘farewell’ shows were partly labelled as such for financial reasons) then that’s nothing that another classic album wouldn’t remedy.

In some respects it feels like no time has passed at all. ‘American Dream’ sounds like a logical extension of ‘This is Happening’s’ post punk and art pop leanings. Fans will recognise the skinny beats and stodgy run times, the array of vintage synthesisers and the cowbells. But there is a darkness that has crept in to the picture as well, belied by the tacky sunshine and blue skies artwork that adorns the front cover. It’s a darkness that isn’t particularly pleasant. On ‘Someone Great’ and ‘All My Friends’, songs with similarly heavy themes, you felt like you were dancing in to oblivion but on ‘American Dream’ there is no such imperative. Instead, you feel like you’re sinking slowly, or drowning, in to the depths. A change in tone and style was likely, necessary even, but the execution is too often cumbersome and laboured.

And yet Murphy remains a singular visionary. When he dares to venture down new avenues, the results are as enticing as ever. Opening track ‘Oh Baby’ is old and new at the same time. It begins with a trickling snare, before familiar synth arpeggios burst in, with James Murphey giving us his best croon to date. The song drips with a sweet sentiment that was previously only inferred from subtext. At first glance, LCD Soundsystem have aged into pretty romantics – an interesting twist. The subtle innovations continue on track two, the limber ‘Other Voices’, which feels like everything you loved about LCD Soundsystem with infinitely more mature funk.

In fact, much of the first half of ‘American Dream’ is impressive. ‘I Used to’ is slow to wake up, with a beat that drags itself out of bed, but eventually settles in to a groovy pop song. There are Post punk guitars thrashing about on the dense ‘Change Yr Mind’, that sound like absolutely delicious approximations of Robert Fripp’s work on David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ album. Amidst the dawdling rhythms and patient swells of ‘How Do You Sleep’ Murphey hits upon the albums most transcendent moments. The song is a none too subtle dig at former DFA co-owner, and best friend, Tim Goldsworthy, that looks back on a lost friendship with a mixture of sadness, resentment, jealousy, anger and repressed fondness. The rising drama is reason enough to justify the ten minute running time.

The tone sours considerably after ‘How Do You Sleep’ and the ideas feel less original and exploratory. ‘Tonite’ is a cheap rehash of any given New Order song that theories about getting old and becoming out of touch. Yep, you may have heard Murphy on that subject before – and actually he sells it most convincingly here, because he’s never sounded this old and out of touch before. He’s still tugging at the same anxieties: losing track of reality, and you friends. He’s still name checking obscure bands and still subtly shooting side glances to his knowing audience. He’s still struggling to get out of bed (literally). He’s still contemplating what comes next. If he sounded anxious and defeated before then that was never borne out by the music or melodies. On American Dream’s second half, he sounds positively defeated.

The most tiresome song on the record is also the one on which you feel Murphy stakes the most. The pretentious ‘Black Screen’ is a missed opportunity. It nabs the strong melody from Jesus and Mary Chain’s ‘Sometimes, Always’ and reflects on the passing of friend and mentor David Bowie. The song cuts through the irony and winks with clear headed reflection and undiluted sensitivity. Ultimately though it meanders in to nothingness – a repeated motif of ‘you could be anywhere on the black screen’, dirge synths going absolutely nowhere for about five minutes longer than necessary, and ultimately a pulsating bass note, repeating into the distance. It’s a good summary of the album. It’s full of good ideas that are snuffed out by pomposity, pretension and repetition. ‘American Dream’ is not an abject failure by any stretch but it’s certainly not an equal of what came before.

2005’s ‘LCD Soundsystem’ started a conversation between the futurist pop of Britney Spears, the underground Bass music of the UK, and classic indie rock. It sounded important, relevant, in of itself and the world it existed in. ‘American Dream’ is far more insular, existing in a James Murphy vacuum. It does not attempt to engage with contemporary pop, dance or indie, instead it feeds off its own past, and the further past of the 1980s. For the length of time it takes you to consider this, ‘American Dream’ is a mammoth disappointment. Then you can kind of take it for what it is; an exquisitely produced, hit and miss, single minded, defiantly middle age statement on one man by one man. American Dream might be a stretch – but it’s certainly a James Murphey dream.



Review Roundup

2 Sep

Sheer Mag ‘Need to Feel Your Love’

Sheer Mag make ecstatic rock that pokes and prods in righteous directions. ‘Tina Halliday’s explosive vocals burst from micro, lo-if anthems that conceal their subtlety and ingenuity under layers of grime and fuzz. In spite of the variable sound quality, the hooks pop and the dynamic arrangements punch out. The band explore various strains of classic rock; from guitar duelling anthems that recall Thin Lizzy to heavier, sludgier takes on hard rock and pop-metal. They address police brutality on ‘Meet Me In the Streets’ and vote rigging on ‘Expect the Bayonet’ but perhaps hit hardest with the frivolous and vacuous love song ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’, the catchiest rock song released in 2017.


Brand New ‘Science Fiction’

There were always people willing to argue that Brand New wrote some of the most thoughtful rock music this side of the millennium, and that lyricist Jesse Lacey was every bit the equal of lauded indie scribes like Alex Turner and and Ezra Koenig, but those views weren’t given much of an airing – until now. Various factors have collided at the right time to make Brand New’s first album in eight years a headline grabbing, number one album. A whole host of young bands crediting Brand New have emerged in recent years, and it seems to me that emo and pop punk get more of a fair shake from critics these days. Not that Brand New are strictly emo or pop punk any more – ‘Science Fiction’ fits more snugly in to the lineage of great alternative rock albums of the 90s. Moody, minor key missives on basically being a bit of a sad sack. It isn’t particularly groundbreaking but it is very assured in what it’s trying to do, and largely achieves its aim in appealing to fans of Smashing Pumpkins, Nine inch Nails and Jane’s Addiction. In a year of great comebacks, Brand New are up there with the best of them.


Ratboy ‘Scum’

Ratboy, aka Jordan Carey, is a veritable, Essex born and bred, Jack of all trades. When he emerged a couple of years ago rapping over a bratty, homemade hip hop beats and fizzy samples, he came off as a pretty straight down the line Jamie T knock off. But ‘Scum’ reveals that to be only one of his many varied get ups. This is a long album, broken up with GTA style radio skits, that spans many genres and features a few famous faces. Damon Albarn turns up on ‘Round Here m8’, the forgettable ska tinted opener, and his influences is overwhelmingly obvious on the record’s Britpop ballad ‘I’ll be waiting’. Damon’s mate Graham Cohen lends guitar to the appropriately named ‘Laidback, while ‘Knock Knock Knock’ will be familiar to fans of ‘Damn’ – Kendrick Lamar sampled the track earlier in the year on his acclaimed album. You don’t become this close to this many legends without having a bit of something about you, and Ratboy certainly has a riotous personality that oozes and exudes across these 25(!) songs. Asking for something more coherent and considered would perhaps make for a better album but it would also somewhat miss the point. By his nature, Ratboy is totally ADHD, and for as long as he can channel this youthful enthusiasm and energy in to music, he will find an audience willing to listen.



Cigarettes After Sex ‘Cigarettes After Sex’ – Review

19 Aug

Cigarettes After Sex have one of those provocative band names that ensures you will listen to the music, just to see what kind of people belong to that kind of name. In this case it’s both a perfectly fitting one (their songs are often about sex, though rarely about cigarettes) and totally ironic – their music is slow, unfussy and measured and generally in no way as attention grabbing as their name is.

Cigarettes have a carefully crafted and clearly defined aesthetic that has already been honed over an e.p and series of singles. They don’t deviate from that here. Five years after that e.p, the album is as measured and assured as you would expect. The ingredients that make up any given song are always the same; seductive vocals, hushed tones, subdued beats, reverb drenched swells of guitar, ambient synths and almost overwhelmingly romantic lyrics. Their sound fits in to a sweet spot somewhere between Mazzy Star, The XX, Rhye and Galaxie 500 but to their credit is far more original than that description would imply.

That is largely down to voice and lyrics. Unlike the instrumentation, lead singer Greg Gonzalez’s voice isn’t touched by reverb. Instead his crystal clear, somewhat androgynous, singing is made the focal point. His melodies are gorgeous and serve to highlight the lyrics which, for better or worse, necessarily do a lot of the heavy lifting. The innocent/naive/affected (depending on your perspective) position that Gonzalez adopts in these songs will not be to everyone’s taste but there is a singularity to his perspective across ten, largely similar, songs that makes ‘Cigarettes After Sex’ stand out.

They say the devil is in the detail, and Gonzales paints in broad strokes whilst remembering to zoom in on the nuances and particulars that make relationships unique. Opening track ‘K’ establishes the template. The scene is set (Gonzalez and his lover, sitting in a restaurant on the lower east side, waiting for the cheque) then the conflict is described (falling in love with someone you’ve been having casual sex with) and then comes a concise summary of his emotions for the chorus. Most songs come with the same mixture of hyper nostalgia, seedy romanticism and precise emotive power. Sometimes the imagery verges on the creepy (‘watching the video of you in the red lingerie, ten times nightly’ ‘you are the patron saint of sucking cock’ ‘you show me your tits on the swing set at the old playground’) but Gonzalez manages to sell it with his seductive voice and admirable honesty.

Cigarettes After Sex’s slow burning love songs have proven to be surprisingly popular – their videos have tens of millions of views on youtube (considerably more than, say, The Killers new singles) despite the band’s relative obscurity. The interest was cultivated in typically modern ways – YouTube recommendations, Spotify playlists and TV soundtracking. The group, or rather their management, smartly licensed the band’s music to tv shows so that these songs soundtracked several sultry moments of your favourite shows.Rather than being a detriment, that’s actually where these songs work best. Isolated individually and accompanied by strong visual images, the music really does come alive. Heard as a pack of ten, melodies, arrangements and lyrics start to feel interchangeable by the end and the overall effect is somewhat dulled. But that precise aesthetic and commitment to consistency is one of the band’s key selling points. You won’t hear many debut albums that sound as confident or assured as ‘Cigarettes After Sex’.



Haim ‘Something to Tell You’ – Review

27 Jul

Five years ago Haim sounded like a dreamy revelation. Their seamless blend of pop, rock and r&b was nothing new but the way they presented it, with contemporary production and bags of personality, certainly was. Their sound referenced and borrowed from the 1980s without being overly reverential, and they took as much from Kanye West as they did Fleetwood Mac. Their innovation was both a blessing and a curse in the long run as in ‘Days Are Gone’s’ aftermath plenty of other artists borrowed its template quite exactingly, from the relatively obscure (Bleachers, Carley Rae Jenson) to the inescapable (Taylor Swift, Brandon Flowers). So where to go from there? The stick or twist dilemma is nothing new for bands on their second album but it’s certainly a bit of a problem (albeit a good one) when your established sound is so recognisable and has been so influential.

For the most part Haim don’t do anything too drastic. Essentially they retain the soft rock, candy coated riffs and bubbling harmonies that were at the heart of ‘Days Are Gone’ whilst zooming in closer on the stylistic choices that were only hinted at last time around. This is not unusual sophomore album territory, and the album’s successes and failures are typical of any number of sequels. Individual influences are inflated and expanded upon – for example ‘Walking Away’ is an out and out r&b song and ‘Little of Your Love’ goes full on pop. On the whole these choices are logical and pay off; they convincingly demonstrate a range and ambition that was previously only implicit. Pleasingly, these moments of unadulterated adventure are actually the strongest on the record.

Ariel Rechtshaid is back behind the boards, and as one of the most impressive producers of the past decade, his distinctive style largely contributed to the success of Haim’s debut. Here though we may have reached saturation point. There is barely a snare sound, vocal, riff or synth line that hasn’t been pitch distorted, bent, warped or manipulated in some way. The collage of digital sounds is simply too overwhelming and too often distracts from the central melody or idea. ‘Days Are Gone’ sounded like a breath of fresh air but too often ‘Something To Tell You’ blows you away with a gust of noise. If the production hadn’t been so fussy and overpowering it might be easier to fall in love with the album but truth be told there are other concerns as well.

The song titles on Side A of ‘Something to Tell You’, don’t so much hint at the album’s subject as knock you around the head with it. ‘Want YOU back’, ‘Ready For YOU’, ‘Something to tell YOU’, ‘YOU Never Knew’, ‘Little of YOUR Love.’ The repetitive use of second person pronoun conveys the single mindedness, and perhaps lack of originality, that define’s the record’s lyrical concerns. Each and every song focuses on an aspect of love, usually from the perspective of a jilted lover and usually directed at the guilty party. Whilst Haim’s lyrics (all aspects of songwriting, including lyrics, are a group effort) are somewhat free of imagination they serve a typical purpose. They ask the listener to think about dynamics of a relationship that they perhaps hadn’t considered before. But they do so vaguely. Perhaps it would be more effective if the group weren’t so quick to rely on cliches to convey their messages. Looking back on a relationship they observe ‘we were one endless road’. As they eyeball the demise of said relationship they say ‘it’s slipping away’. Almost every line in every chorus feels expected which rather undoes the impact. The lack of originality doesn’t necessarily get in the way of these songs connecting with the listener but you’d expect more from three sisters who stand out from the crowd in so many other respects.

Perhaps that’s the great shame of ‘Something to Tell You’ – Haim play to very familiar archetypes, without doing much to imprint their own riotous personality. Instead they leave it to Ariel Rechtshaid (who has been helped extensively by Rostam Batmanglij) to pick up the pieces with a frazzling production that overwhelms the songs. This is an enjoyable album but at its core is a great one that has been undervalued and overcooked.



Coldplay ‘Kaleidoscope’ – Review

18 Jul

Despite essentially being a companion release to last year’s middling ‘A Head Full of Dreams’, ‘Kaleidoscope’, Coldplay’s new five track e.p, serves a more wide reaching purpose. In some ways it works as a suitable primer for Coldplay’s nearly two decades deep discography.

‘All I Can Think About You’ is a glorious throwback to the ‘Clocks’ era incarnation of the band, where sky scraping melodies are bedded in with moody piano riffs with minimal fuss. The less successful ‘Aliens’ reunites the band with Brian Eno for a re-run of their ‘Viva La Vida’ experimentation. Gratifyingly, the song’s political theme raises the stakes on the shallow sentiment of the band’s last album. Big Sean duet ‘Miricles’ reminds us that modern day Coldplay love to recruit celebrity names (see also, BeyoncĂ©, Rihanna, Chainsmokers) for cheesy collaborations. This one isn’t too bad though. The, well, hypnotic, ‘Hypnotised’ emerges and disappears from memory without making any kind of mark. And then we’re left with the awful ‘Something Just Like This’, here presented as an elongated live version, presumably because everyone who has heard the original either already has it downloaded or never wants to hear it again. The live version does the hit some favours in that it diminishes the headache inducing EDM thud thud production and uses the audience as an enthusiastic endorsement of the song – but they surely can’t persuade me it’s anything other than banality of the most mind numbing variety.

‘Kaleidoscope’ is about the least surprising release of the year in a couple of senses. It’s a Coldplay e.p and it sounds exactly like a Coldplay e.p. Nothing more, nothing less. If you like Coldplay you will like ‘Kaleidoscope’. If you don’t like Coldplay then you won’t like Kaleidoscope. Secondly, it is after all only an e.p and is as slight and insubstantial as that title would suggest. Even Coldplay’s most passionate fans won’t be claiming it to be anything revelatory. By my reckoning, of the five songs only one is a real winner (‘All I can Think About Is You’) and only one is dreadful (‘Something Just Like This’). The rest are nice, inoffensive, unexceptional post-pop Coldplay songs that will float by nicely in the background next time you have some housework to do.